What should be the focus: process or results?
Your first instinct might be to say "results." Americans are a practical people. There’s a reason the good guy in movies is always the action hero getting the job done, not the police commissioner fussing about him blowing up the town. What matters is that goals are achieved, and achievement requires flexibility, not rigid adherence to rules and procedures.
But results follow processes, so truly effective people and organizations focus on those. True, bad processes can lead to good results and vice versa, but better processes will create better long-term results most of the time. "Hitler made the trains run on time" is results-only thinking. There’s an old saying among businessmen that, if you watch your pennies, the dollars will take care of themselves. That’s process thinking.
The country’s big problems will not be effectively addressed as long as Americans focus on results — who wins the next election, next year’s federal budget deficit, etc. — instead of on the processes creating those results.
For much of the nation’s history, its political processes have helped produce good results. America’s democratic government has been a major reason the country has enjoyed wide-ranging freedoms, rising levels of prosperity, and world leadership. Other countries have aspired to be like us.
But the processes, either because of design flaws or because of the way they have evolved, have broken down, and now everyone is wondering, "Hey, what happened to the results?"
For example, the democratic process has become a stale, two-party system dominated by a professional political class that is too interested in its own survival and not enough in public service. The result is that too little legislation benefits the country long-term. Meanwhile, no part of the budgetary process ensures the government spends no more than it collects over time. The result is that Uncle Sam has been going deeper in debt since the 1830s.
The moral of this story? On any political issue, think process at the same time you are thinking results. A process that lowers taxes today, or that saves some government program, might also create the conditions that make it harder to balance the budget. A policy that seems to support a particular social value — such as the government "defining" marriage one way or the other — might lead to processes that increase government’s power in our daily lives.
It’s not just that processes create results. Results also create processes. A particular result — even if it seems good at the time — can encourage bad processes that, in the long run, hurt the country. So instead of celebrating temporary political victories or mourning temporary defeats, Americans should ask themselves who really won the battle. If a less democratic, less responsible, and less free process was created, probably none of us did.
There’s one other moral: It’s not any one person’s or even a lot of people’s fault. If you think America must simply get rid of the temporary occupant of the White House or put a different party in charge of Congress, then you don’t understand the depth of the problem. Whoever wins the next election — that’s merely a result. The country’s processes have been creating bigger government and more debt for a long time. They will continue to do so until they are replaced with better processes.
If you really want better results, you have to think process first. Which processes do you think should be changed? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If I get enough thoughtful responses, I’ll include them in a future column.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.